Q. As an artist who creates something for young people, do you feel a responsibility or obligation to deliver a message, to teach through your story telling, etc...or are you truly just trying to write a good story and if it teaches something along the way then that is ok too? (My question comes from an interview I saw with Sean Penn a while back. He made the statement that film is too powerful a medium to not try to do serious, beautiful work with. To simply just use it as a vehicle to make money would be irresponsible of him.)
A. I think Sean Penn is a very wise soul, and I agree with him. However, I know very few children’s writers who are in this industry for the money. There’s just not that much money to be made in children’s books, and I would guess that only a few of us are supporting ourselves on our writing alone. I’ve been working hard at this for the better part of thirty years and I can honestly say that my writing income has only become viable enough for me to live on in the past few years. Most of us, present company included, supplement our writing incomes by teaching and doing school visits. And more than a few of us hold day jobs. Early on, I worked in a book store to help make ends meet, and I’ve had a variety of other jobs along the way as well.
But to get back to your more interesting question about delivering a message, I will say that when I’m writing a book I’m always aware of a question that I’m trying to answer. Is a message the same thing as a question? That probably depends upon whether or not I actually answer it in the course of the story. In Keeper, the question was, “Can love abide?” I posed this for each of my primary characters, and as the story unfolded, I hoped that the answer would be “yes” for each of them.
For Keeper, the question appeared as her need to make things right between herself and everyone she loved. Could love survive all the mistakes she had made? For Mr. Beauchamp the question showed up in the form of time— could love abide so many years later? For Dogie, could love allow him to speak his two-word question to Signe? Could love abide? Did I answer that overriding question?
If my young readers get that—the notion that love can survive or abide across time, in spite of big mistakes, and in the face of incredible odds, then that would be the answer I longed for, and if it presents itself in the form of a message, then that seems like an enormous bonus to me. As a caveat, the answer doesn’t have to be neat and tidy. At the end of Keeper, the question concerning Keeper’s mother is never really resolved.
And I left it open with the hopes that my readers would come to their own conclusion. There is room in life for ambiguity, and I think that’s important too.
In the face of my young audience, I feel it is my responsibility to ask hard questions and to also make them difficult to answer. Just as a hero is only as worthy as the antagonist, the question is only as worthy as the possible answers.
Years ago, when I was just starting out as an author, I read a wonderful interview in The Writer with Madeleine L’Engle. The interviewer asked her how she knew whether she had written a story for adults or a story for children, and her response was something like, “I stand back and ask, is this good enough for children?”
I’ve thought of that so many times in my work. Is it good enough for children? It’s a daunting thing, a big responsibility. But I don’t want to make it too easy for them either. I think that kids deserve a chance to ask their own hard questions, and a book offers them that chance.
I recently read a book by Kelly Gallagher called Readicide, and in it he described something called “imaginative rehearsals,” in which he talks about allowing a child to “rehearse” strong feelings such as sorrow or joy via a story, and how important that was so that when they were faced with something in their real lives, they could know how to name their experience. I love that—imaginative rehearsals.
So, long answer to your question—a question is what I hope I’m offering my readers, and if we’re all lucky, perhaps they’ll find a message in the answer.